Fantasia Fest 2021 Review: God Works In Mysterious Ways in Mark O’Brien’s “The Righteous”

“Always know in which direction you’re praying,” a priest tells Frederic Mason (Henry Czerny), a bit too late in “The Righteous.” A former man of the cloth himself, Frederic doesn’t underestimate the power of prayer, though he’s had his faith shaken of late, recently burying his young daughter Joanie and in visiting what was once a place of comfort where he could fall back on God’s plan, there is only confusion when nothing makes sense any more. It isn’t exactly an unfamiliar spot for Frederic, who decided to leave both the calling and his community up north a decade earlier when he fell in love with the newly widowed Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) not necessarily knowing what the path ahead would look like, and for actor/writer/director Mark O’Brien, there is a knowledge he isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel when considering Frederic at odds with the gospel he once preached so feverishly, yet it feels like new territory when the ground trembles in “The Righteous” with the team behind it every bit as assured in their steps as the characters on screen are unsteady.

Frederic and Ethel together actually appear at peace when they’re first introduced, even if they are grieving over the unseen Joanie, who still fills their house with her empty bed and unused swing set that sits outside. The two retired to a quiet life years ago, making the silence something they’re accustomed to even when undesired and a belief that they are part of a grander design continues to lead them through their days as they deal with considerable grief, a trust that extends itself to welcoming in a stranger (O’Brien) who stumbles into their yard without any good explanation in the dead of night. O’Brien, who has perfected the art of playing a slippery straight man as an actor with seemingly benign significant others in “Ready Or Not” and the series “Halt and Catch Fire” where a lot more was going on below the surface, has more than enough charisma for Frederic to take him in, better judgment aside, but as a writer, he impresses with a perverse logic that the stranger who comes to be known as Aaron can crack open the door with more than his Southern charm, inserting himself into Frederic and Ethel’s lives perhaps not in place of the daughter they’ve lost, but as someone who they can talk to about her without any baggage.

Soon enough, Ethel is making pancakes for Aaron in the morning, but it turns out that he wants something in return, building all sorts of shades of grey into the stark black-and-white thriller. Like the Masons’ turn-of-the-century home, the trappings are classical in “The Righteous,” with its organ-infused score and chiaroscuro lighting, but the central idea of it is subversively modern when the notion of an otherworldly pull can move in two directions, not exactly framed as a battle between good and evil, but as a some sort of spiritual equilibrium. Czerny, who has long relished characters who project a smug arrogance, nimbly exposes cracks in the armor here as he contends with Aaron’s request and while the film rarely leaves the house, it feels far bigger as Frederic has a truly dark night of the soul. While not everyone may like the answers they get to their prayers in O’Brien’s blistering thriller, “The Righteous” indeed feels like a gift from above.

“The Righteous” will screen virtually through Fantasia Fest on August 18th beginning at 9 pm EST.